In the 50 years since his death, Ernesto “Che” Guevara has grown into a mythical figure for leftists around the world. As one of the heroes of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, Che came to exemplify the quintessential Marxist guerrilla leader: fearless, uncompromising, and honest to his cause. Despite his failed attempts to spark similar revolutions in Congo and Bolivia, where he died at the hands of the Bolivian military on October 9, 1967, his tenacity—both on and off the battlefield—in his war against capitalism would serve as inspiration for future armed and political movements around the world.
Che had his fair share of enemies. In his 1997 biography of the Argentine guerrilla, titled Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Jon Lee Anderson explains how the Bolivian military officers who had captured and killed Che hid his corpse in a mass grave in efforts to delegitimize his legacy. They hoped that, with the disappearance of his body, the legend of Che Guevara would also die. Instead, Anderson writes, “the Che myth grew and spiraled beyond anyone’s control.”
I spoke to Anderson, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World, about Che’s legacy.
Miguel Salazar: As you know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Che’s death. How do young Cubans on the island and recent expats view Che today? Is it different from the way the rest of Latin America views him?
Jon Lee Anderson: There’s an obvious generational watershed that’s happened in the last few years with the beginning of cuentapropismo, the opening [of diplomatic relations] with the US. I think there’s a sense with them that Che represents the past. There’s a type of young Cuban that regards Che as having been forced down their throats as an iconic figure that they were supposed to emulate. But I don’t know that it’s developed into a full-throated rejection yet.
I know young Cubans who are sort of torn. The ones that I know are more certain about their feelings of antipathy for Fidel or the kind of gerontocracy that they feel has held them back, whereas Che has always inhabited for them this other worldly place. He exists in this spiritual realm, and I’m not sure they’ve reconciled that difference. Some of them are trying to read their history for the first time and look at their own figures for the first time. In the past two or three years, they’ve been able to read books, articles, or have access to media that gives them a different perspective on people, including Che. I think the reckoning is still out there; it has yet to come.
MS: Given that Che died half a century ago, it seems that there is room for distortion in the way his story is told. What are the biggest distortions that you’ve noticed by his admirers?